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How to build company culture in a work-from-home world

How and where people work have undergone a revolution in recent years. Positions that once required eight hours in a cubicle are now being filled by people working from home, sometimes in cities across the country from their employer.

This work-from-home revolution brings with it a number of opportunities for employers and employees alike. People can be more flexible with their hours, fitting in school pick-ups and doctor appointments around meetings while simultaneously saving time and money on commutes.   

On the other hand, working from home presents its own set of challenges, particularly when it comes to company culture. The ways that employees interact with each other have changed dramatically, and that has important implications for business processes and even the bottom line.

So, how do you build a company culture when the company is at home? University of Phoenix career advisor Ricklyn Woods shares her insights on how to succeed in a brave and increasingly remote new world.

What is company culture?

According to Woods, company culture (aka organizational culture or office culture) is nothing less than “the DNA of the organization.” It comprises everything from company values to the way employees interact with each other to prevailing attitudes within an organization.

Of course, no singular aspect of organizational culture happens in a vacuum. The tone with which managers speak to subordinates, for instance, can affect how those employees speak with their co-workers.

Organizational culture, in other words, is essentially the social environment within which work gets done.

Maintaining a positive organizational culture isn’t just about employee happiness, although that’s certainly a big part of it. Potential employees may be on the lookout for a place to work where they’ll feel respected and supported. Existing employees may not want to stay long at a company with a toxic emotional environment, regardless of pay or benefits.

In general, it’s safe to say that people work better when they aren’t made to feel uncomfortable. Company culture at its best can provide a companywide environment that is conducive to happy, highly motivated employees.

Do organizations have a stake in positive workplace culture?

It may seem as if leadership in an organization only cares about productivity and the bottom line, and that defining a workplace culture is not a priority. For those exercising forward-thinking C-suite leadership, however, that could not be further from the truth.

When employees are unhappy at work, that can have an effect up and down the organization. Negative employee engagement can undermine the team effort that helps make organizations successful and the work environment rewarding. An employee may feel less inclined to commit time to innovation and new ideas when they feel negatively about the work environment. They may feel inclined to simply “clock in and clock out” and not be engaged with their job with passion and curiosity. In this way, negative company culture can seriously undermine the innovation and leadership potential of employees.

In turn, that negative organizational culture can yield a negative effect on the bottom line of the organization. Many companies work in competitive industries where innovation and fresh ideas can spell the difference between success and failure.

Without a strategy for creating a positive company culture (or improving a negative company culture) organization leadership may not be aware of the ideas their employees might bring in when they feel positive about the workplace. When skilled employees hear about the company culture of another organization, they may be inclined to move there. Not only is that an employee lost. That is an employee whose skills may be utilized by the competition.

On the flip side, let’s talk about the positives that can result from a thought-out company culture.

Why should business leadership develop a positive company culture?

Whether remote or in person, it’s not a stretch to say that people work better when they are happier. Of course, many factors are at play when it comes to employee happiness, and there’s only so much that business leadership can do to improve employee attitudes. At the same time, it’s important that company culture is not the source of negativity in an employee’s life. Even better, a positive company culture can make going to work something that employees look forward to.

Employee engagement in their work can increase productivity and make the workplace somewhere that they want to stay and grow. That can translate to employees who develop and strengthen skills that can make them great fits for leadership positions in the organization down the line.

Positive company culture can also help nurture the relationship between employees, and breed an atmosphere of collaboration and innovation. Whether in person or in virtual settings, employees who have open and positive conversations with each other are probably more likely to share their ideas with each other. These conversations can increase the comradery among employees and help the organization work better as a team.

It can be difficult for employees to share fresh ideas and innovate. That can be made even more difficult when employees feel that there will be a negative reaction when they share what’s on their mind. In a positive office culture, employees are free to share even their most outlandish ideas without fear of judgment. That idea may not be the finalized version, but it can yield further conversation and collaboration that does produce that critical breakthrough.

This atmosphere of collaboration can make it easier for employees and managers to have difficult conversations about potential obstacles and challenges. In a positive office culture, employees can feel comfortable about sharing when they are struggling. This can help those in leadership positions develop a strategy to head off potential problems before they grow out of proportion.

On the flip side, when employees feel that they cannot have these conversations because of a negative office culture, they may not share this crucial information. The result can be that problems fester and become much more serious and difficult to address. Positive office culture can help ensure that problems are addressed as soon as they arise.

These are all good reasons why organization leadership should commit time to creating a positive workplace culture. When it comes to remote work, however, the need for a strategy becomes even more apparent. In the following, Woods explains the kinds of unique challenges raised by remote work when it comes to a positive office culture strategy.

Culture wars

Perhaps the biggest challenge of creating an organizational culture when everyone is working from home is the lack of impromptu encounters. “You aren’t bumping into people anymore around the office,” Woods says.

In a traditional, in-person company culture, employees have ample opportunities to meet and get to know each other. This can mean a short chat in the breakroom while the coffee percolates to company-hosted happy hours. These encounters let employees make meaningful connections and get to know each other outside of deadlines and meetings.

For Woods, such interactions are an important part of building “connectiveness” among employees, not only between each other but to the company culture at large. When new employees onboard, for example, it can be easier for them to get the lay of the land while meeting everyone in the office on their first day instead of over Zoom.

With remote work, such interactions happen rarely if at all. As a result, a company or department may lack cohesion, experience a drop in morale or encounter multiple opportunities for miscommunication, all of which can be alienating and counterproductive. This doesn’t foster a positive company culture.

How to build a positive office culture while at home

As Woods points out, we exist in a fairly unprecedented time. “We have amazing technology, amazing collaboration tools,” she says, citing virtual meeting platforms that make it possible for businesses to operate with remote employees.

These technologies can obviously be put to good use while getting work done. At the same time, they can be used to build and promote a positive company culture that employees want to engage with.

It really comes down to how this technology is used. For example, managers who use video chat technology to drag employees into unproductive meetings can make those employees feel like their time is being wasted. On the other hand, managers who set meetings only when necessary, and who use scheduling assistants to define a convenient window of time for everyone, can make those employees feel engaged and that their time is valued.

Even small things, like emojis and GIFs sent between employees can create a sense of personal connection that might otherwise be lost while working remotely. Far from being unprofessional, these interactions can strengthen the connections within a team and positively impact the quality and efficiency of the work. It can be a great way to improve employee engagement in a positive organizational culture.

A personal touch

A big aspect of positive company culture, particularly when remote, is what Woods calls “psychological safety.” Employees, in other words, need to feel that they’re in a safe place and that they will not be judged by their participation (or nonparticipation) in office culture.

Every employee has different needs and different comfort zones. While an icebreaker at the beginning of a video meeting may be just the thing for some employees, others may find it uncomfortable. A mandatory virtual happy hour may be welcome by some and dreaded by others.

So, what’s a manager to do? Woods offers the following tips:

1. Provide employees freedom as to when and how they engage with office culture. As a manager, this might mean being clear about which meetings require being on camera and which ones don’t.

2. Communicate to build trust. With remote work, a manager may not be able to see the moment-to-moment progress of an employee, which makes good communication critical. Managers and employees need to talk to each other about how they can work best together. Managers may want accountability, while employees may need to feel trusted. Clearly communicating these mutual expectations can promote an atmosphere of respect and productivity.

3. Set up one-to-one meetings with employees every week. These standing appointments provide the chance for managers to check in on the progress of an assignment without the constant pressure of micromanagement. More importantly, their casual nature and regular cadence offer the chance to build rapport. Keeping up with the personal lives of their employees can help managers make those employees feel respected.

While there are many challenges posed by the WFH revolution, there are just as many opportunities. When trust and clear lines of communication are established, businesses can promote an organizational culture that’s more productive, positive and profitable.

Want to learn more about how you can remain productive while working from home? Learn what you need to know on our blog!